Will the Computer and the Calculator do our Thinking for us?
Welcome to our Expanded Thinking Priorities
Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Copyright © Renée Fuller, 1999
Mrs. Bodden's phone call was on our help line. Her voice was filled with pride as she described her seven-year old son's accomplishments in the short time since the reading system had arrived - that was until she described Jason's handwriting. "His penmanship is terrible. We can barely read it!" Now her voice expressed deep concern. "They told us that he has impaired fine motor development, and cognitive processing problems."
My voice tried to express understanding. "You had him tested?"
"Yes. That was before we got your books. We agreed to let the school test him even after we decided to home school Jason. We wanted to make sure that everything was all right, that maybe we should do things differently. We didn't really expect that anything was wrong: in spite of what the school had told us. He always seemed like such a bright little boy. But now I can't help wondering..."
Jason is indeed a bright youngster. At age seven he is writing little stories on the computer, and illustrating the computer printouts with amusing, but not so great line drawings. He has shared "his books" with neighborhood pals who thoroughly enjoyed his creations. So what is Jason's problem?
Jason does not like to practice his penmanship. Instead he's spending hours composing on the computer and figuring out how to make the machine work for him. Besides, like most little boys, his hands are not as skilled as those of his six-year old sister's. What his parents and his school didn't seem to realize is that little girls frequently do better in fine motor skills than little boys. In other words Jason, rather than being defective, is a typical seven-year old male.
But there is something else that the school had not realized that Jason, however, had. Our new technologies are demanding new priorities which raise the question "Is it really that important to drill Jason in the fine motor skills he lacks in order to improve his penmanship?" The "experts" had told Mrs. Bodden that that is what she would have to do. But how successful had the penmanship drills been?
"Well, maybe he's improved just a little. But he hates it so. It makes him angry. He's always loved learning new thing. But this is different. I don't know what to do."
Is it really that important for 21st century Jason to have the lovely penmanship of my great great-grandfather of the 19th century? If that great great-grandfather could have had Jason's computer would he have bothered to spend years on penmanship drills - drills that were necessary in order to produce his easy-to-read and aesthetically pleasing penmanship? Having read some of my great great-grandfather's letters, which reflect his assertive and successful personality, I don't think so. Like Jason, my great great-grandfather would have spent his intelligence and energy on learning what he considered the priorities of his world. Although many of the priorities of his and our world have remained the same, ours are new and expanded learning requirements.
Prior to our information age, easy-to-read penmanship was an essential for written communication, and was therefore worth spending the learning time required. Since good penmanship also expressed who you were, it was an added plus if the handwriting was aesthetically pleasing. But, as Jason had realized, we're living in the age of the computer keyboard. More important than good penmanship is the ability to comprehend and clearly respond to written communication. This has become an essential requirement of the 21st century information age for which seven-year old Jason was equipping himself. He may also have understood, albeit implicitly, that the exciting possibilities of our information age come with a curious paradox.
Those intricate new machines, harbingers of the information age, rather than allowing us to sit back while they do our thinking for us, are making ever-increasing intellectual demands on us.
Nowadays even an auto mechanic has to be able to follow the sophisticated instructions of the shop's computer and respond by typing out the appropriate orders for further diagnostic tests and parts. Advanced mastery of written communication in its various forms has become an essential skill for gainful employment. Where before it was possible to find jobs that did not require advanced literacy, it has now become necessary for even the most menial occupations. Just think what can happen if the garbage collector cannot read and respond appropriately to warning labels.
However, I do find myself mourning the disappearance of beautiful handwritten letters and exquisitely hand-carved furniture brought about by the changing priorities. Mrs. Bodden shared my regret. So I suggested, "Your children might enjoy using calligraphy pens with which they can make the written word artistically beautiful - a beauty that thereby becomes a part of the communication." Perhaps only home school moms and dads have the time, after having taught the priorities, to respond to such an individualized suggestion. Beautiful handwriting or calligraphy, never mind how important to some of us, are not one of the essentials children must master in order to participate in our information age.
The essential priorities of our information age are the abilities to read and understand advanced material and to communicate clearly in written form. This requires an automatic (implicit, not rule spouting) proficiency in the correct use of grammar (poor grammar makes it difficult for others to understand the communication), and good spelling (otherwise even the computer spellchecker won't be able to comprehend and fix the mistakes). Our research demonstrated that effective teaching methods for both grammar and spelling are through the implicit rather than explicit route. Explicit flashcard drills and the learning of rules of either grammar or spelling proved to be surprising duds.
The reason? The human brain is wired for context. Even this year's spelling champion had to request that the word that won her the championship be given to her in a meaningful sentence. Which is why the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system when introducing a new spelling pattern (presented in lists of similar words) immediately uses those words in hilarious and easy to follow adventures. This method allows the human brain to draw implicit conclusions for the correct spelling of kindred words. As for the teaching of grammar, the reading system has also functioned, albeit inadvertently, in the implicit teaching of correct sentence structure through its use of developmental linguistics.
Why was advanced literacy so important to Jason? Most significant was probably the excitement he derived from creating his own stories - stories that bore an interesting resemblance to mine with which he had learned to read. An important second was exploring his favorite topics: volcanoes and dinosaurs. Besides, even his six-year old sister already knew how to use the phone, read signs, and had friends using computer programs. Further, his safety conscious parents were concerned that without literacy their children would be unable to communicate in emergencies.
In addition we observed another important achievement in our Ball-Stick-Bird students. It was their enhanced ability to think. We found that the system's utilization of developmental linguistics functioned as a demonstration of how to use language in the creation of ideas. Jason described his enhanced ability to his mother with, "Now that I can read I have cool ideas." Mrs. Bodden agreed. Jason had achieved what she called "an astonished competence in his communications" not just with others, but with himself. Almost in awe she said, "His ability to use words, and express ideas is amazing."
Jason had grasped what many of our students had, that increased understanding of language provides the tools with which to structure the morass of inundating information. By increasing our ability to structure information we increase our capacity in the skill the computer lacks - the ability to think.
Alongside the priority of advanced literacy, there is the other major priority of our information age - the ability to use and to understand the manipulation of numbers. Again we are faced with that curious paradox. Today's calculators, like our computers, rather than doing our thinking for us, make greater intellectual demands than ever before. We, the products of the information age, are now required to understand the true meaning of addition and its relation to multiplication and squaring; we are required to comprehend the meaning of subtraction and its relation to division and square root; decimals and their relation to fractions and percentages. More than ever before we have to know how to interpret what the numbers mean, and how these meanings are achieved. Otherwise when our calculators produce non-sense (because we hit the wrong key, or because the battery ran low, etc.) we won't realize that the answer makes no sense.
Successful use of the calculator requires that we think through the question and know what the approximate answer should be. To achieve this we have to understand the meaning of the numbers, and we need lots of practice (not rote learning or out-of-context drill) in doing computational manipulations in our head. That requires a very different teaching approach from the way most of us were taught arithmetic and even mathematics when we were children.
When I was a child we learned addition, subtraction, multiplication and division by rote. Very little understanding was required. It took me years before I realized that multiplication was just a quickie form of addition, and division a quickie form of subtraction. That was because our math classes meant rote learning and performance. Even algebra and algebra problems demanded little understanding. But things have changed. Merely out-of-context drilling of students in arithmetical operations is no safeguard against catching the calculator's production of nonsense. However, practice, which means drill in the context of real problems, allows the child to learn if an answer makes sense. Substituting entertaining practice for out-of-context drill can produce an even greater proficiency in arithmetical operations, such as the multiplication table, than does rote learning. There are many places the practice can take place - from the supermarket to the gas pump, to distances traveled by car or on foot, to home repair.
And that's just for starters of what is required. Just think of the barrage of statistics that have become a part of our lives. Much of the nonsense spouted by the media with respect to statistics reflects that these old timers (even twenty to forty year-olds are old timers when it gets to statistical understanding) have little or no grasp as to actual meaning of the numbers. In order to navigate the numerical information glut of today's world a child has to understand the arithmetic summations that produced the statistics. Only then is it possible to comprehend the meaning of the summations and/or predictions that the numbers imply. It is hard to overestimate the increasing importance of statistics in our decision-making process - from options involved in health care, to dealing with environmental concerns, to understanding our own or national budgets, even to dealing with the changing weather.
You say that very little of this is taught in our schools. That like me you are not as good as you feel you should be in thinking with numbers. But then, as we have all said many times, "one of the pleasures of home schooling is that you learn alongside your child." It is a privilege we seldom allow our public school teachers.
The deluge of numerical information resulting from the calculator revolution requires a meaningful framework. Where before memorization and rote performance was the essence of learning, the superior number crunching capacity of the calculator, and the superior data storage of the computer have made mere memorization of numbers and facts a meaningless enterprise.
Today's deluge of facts and numbers makes it essential that we teach how to organize this glut of information into a meaningful framework. Otherwise we have information without meaning. And facts and numbers without meaning are merely databases - something the computers and calculators accomplish much more efficiently than does the human brain. But the human brain can create context and thereby knowledge - something the machines can't.
In our research we found that the most effective way to structure facts is by organizing them into a story framework. Facts, i.e. data, once they are part of, or actually create a meaningful story, become easy to think with and to remember. That is how we humans have always structured information; by having facts tell us a story. Even our severely retarded students had an easier time reading words in the context of a story than when the same words were presented in a word list. This was also true for spelling mastery. Which is why Ball-Stick-Bird, after presenting a particular phonic sound or reading principles, immediately embeds them into hilarious adventure stories.
Surprisingly Catherine Stern in her "Children Discover Arithmetic" did something similar for mathematics in the 1950s. Her research showed that even the multiplication table is learned more rapidly and thoroughly when taught in a story context.
Advanced literacy and numerical understandings have become the two primary priorities of the computer and the calculator age. Success in the other areas of academic learning depends on the mastery of these two primary priorities. The escalating demands on our ability to structure information, on our capacity to think, are the hallmark of the computer/calculator revolution. Where before memorization of facts and rote manipulation of numbers were the essentials of schooling, the new essentials require that we teach how facts and numbers are structured into knowledge.
The computer and the calculator - those harbingers of the information age - rather than doing our thinking for us, allow us, in fact require us, to utilize our unique human ability to organize facts to create a meaningful story.
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Williamstown, MA 01267
© 1999 Renée Fuller
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